April 23rd, 2010. Late afternoon. 9½ miles.
Most of this walk was along tarred, vehicular roads with unnatural, unforgiving, foot-jarring surfaces so I not only felt I was tramping (properly ‘stamping, walking heavily’) but felt like a tramp to boot. I am now engaged in systematically exploring the few remaining unvisited tracts on the edge of my 4-mile diameter circle of territory. I head south-west to a section between Bar Hill and Madingley, beyond the A14 divide. To get there I have to walk a mile along the main road between Oakington and Dry Drayton, which passes over the A14, so that I can pick up a bridleway marked on the map. I find the bridleway sign, just off the hard shoulder of the northbound carriageway, but it is pointing into an impenetrable thicket. I discover the right-of-way itself nearby, barred by a gate, expropriated as a private driveway within someone’s garden. It’s a no-go area as far as I’m concerned. I walk a little way down the litter-strewn verge and cut through the crematorium to see if I can reach the bridleway from another direction.
The crem, as it is affectionately called, is unsurprisingly orderly, sanitized, polite. The grounds are green, clipped and spacious. Pleasant to walk through… perhaps because there is no action this evening, no smoke from the chimney (have they gone smokeless perhaps?). Tucked away in a corner, on a knoll, is a heart-rending tree-shrine. A sapling adorned with mementos – a silver star hanging from a branch, a fading plastic-wrapped photo of an overjoyed Mum hugging a baby, another of an awkward young teenager, a model silver motorbike suspended by a thread, and a motorbike tax disc holding a message, tacked into the wood. 20 years old. It’s not hard to discern how he died. How they must have poured their grief into this tree, watered it with their tears, his family and friends. Death on the road, and even in death remembered, fittingly, beside a roaring avalanche of traffic. It’s a poignant reminder. My son and I both ride motorbikes. My instructor used to say that Death lurked just around the corner, waiting for the unwary. Bikers or not, we would do well to remember the Lurker.
A gap in the hedge brings me onto the sought-after bridleway, a dry dirt track that winds through fields of flowering rape. There are, I am pleased to see, a few butterflies on the wing, the canaries of the agrochemical industry, and now something of a rarity – small whites, brimstones, a pair of orange tips joined in conjugal flight, and peacocks, flaunting their rich, red-velvet wings, each adorned with a conspicuous round ‘eye’. Beck Brook is here, three miles upstream from my own Westwick Bridge, a mere runnel, barely flowing, overgrown, just a stone’s throw from its indiscernible and undefined source. This side of the A14 watershed, the western side, is a subtly different country. The soil is sandier, the trees taller, the land begins to rise. Properties are larger, farms are neater, hedges, some of them, are properly laid.
Today I hug trees. Not for comfort, nor in empathy, but in the interests of history. One way of estimating the age of a tree is to measure its girth, or waist, at chest height or 1.5 metres from the ground, near enough. But who in their right mind carries a tape-measure on their person when out for a walk? Not even a tailor. So you measure it with hugs, arms outstretched, from fingertip to fingertip, which of course is the fathom, one of the old human-based units of measurement. The largest and oldest tree I hug today is an oak, presumably an English or pedunculate oak, not especially ancient, but stately. It is 3½ hugs round, 3½ hugs old. That’s a girth of two inches short of 20 feet or just over 6 meters (5’ 8” or 173 cms, my hug, x 3½). According to the tables published by the Woodland Trust this makes it just over 400 years old, planted (deliberately, probably, in view of its location on a field boundary) about 1609, the year when Shakespeare first published his sonnets and Galileo Galilei demonstrated his first telescope. It looks like it could easily live for another 400 years.
a three-and-a-half-hug oak
I tramp up the B-road to the edge of tree-lined Madingley, passed by open-top convertibles driven by career-women too old for their cars. Ride-on mowers purr behind shrubberies. The road verges are like lawns, the lawns like bowling greens. Shiny new Range Rovers are displayed in front of freshly-thatched cottages and converted farmhouses. We have definitely moved out of the fen-edge.
Turning towards home I hope to pick up a footpath further on down the B-road. A mile on I find the sign and stile, but no path. According to the map, it runs through the middle of a field, but the farmer has simply expunged it. It has been obliterated by beans. Not wanting to trample the little plants, I am forced round the edge of the field in order to reach the gap and wooden footbridge over which the path once led. The stretch across the next field has also been ploughed over, and on the far side I can see where the line of the path meets the embankment of a very busy road. Eventually I get there, climb over a wooden fence and up the bank, onto the edge of the two-lane northbound section of the A14 where it feeds into the M11, no hard shoulder, just crash barriers. Traffic bearing down on me. The sign’s still there – Public Footpath to Madingley 1½, Dry Drayton 2 – but the Highways Agency, the County Council and the local farmers have conspired to wipe this ancient right-of-way off the land, if not the map. The public path continues eastwards towards Girton, but it has been severed at this point by no less than three murderous roads. Of course, only a fool would attempt to use this footpath now. So in the interests of my mission to walk every yard of my 12½ square mile patch, especially each designated footpath, bridleway, byway, and lane, I must soldier on. In any case, the nearest safe crossing is miles away.
The traffic is relentless. It’s the Friday evening exodus. Patience, patience… it’s just a matter of waiting. And soon, indeed, there is a break in the flow, and I manage to cross without being blown away by the blare of truckers’ horns. I dive through 50 yards of scrubby woodland and emerge onto the M11. This is a different kettle of fish. Six lanes of manic motorway traffic, hurtling. But it’s a pretty constant flow – 60 mph in the slow lane, 80 at least in the central lane, 100 + in the fast lane – which means it’s predictable. The mind, unconsciously, calculates, the decision is taken (by whom?), and the body moves. Bismillah! There’s no turning back. To hesitate is to die. I reach the central reservation and the safety of the barriers. Next carriageway. I peer into the distance of the oncoming traffic, 200, 300 yards upstream, looking out for the gaps. But, if anything, this southbound traffic is even denser. I’m stuck in the worst place imaginable – the central reservation of a motorway at peak hour on a Friday evening. Relax… what’s the worst that could happen? And then, magically, the traffic parts, and I take the plunge. It’s a stroll in the park actually, and I’m over. Nearly there, just two lanes of east-bound A14 traffic to negotiate. Again, it’s just a matter of timing then acting like lightning. It’s a doddle. I’m over. Yes, no doubt there are a number of very alarmed drivers and passengers out there, some of whom might well be on their mobiles to the police right now, but I feel it has achieved one small victory against the machine, one small assertion of a priceless historic right on behalf of every free Englishman and Englishwoman. Though I shan’t be making a habit of it.
I follow the continuation of the public footpath to the east, leading into the tree-lined and lovely Washpit Lane and Duck End of lower Girton. Grey squirrels precede me, taking the aerial route. I am, again, trudging on tarmac. My feet and ankles are protesting in earnest against this obdurate, unyielding surface. I leave the road to escape the traffic and give my feet a break, turning onto a footpath towards Histon, the neighbouring village. But this is a new path, constructed not worn, and its makers, who are not walkers I’ll warrant, have seen fit to surface it in a concrete-hard clinker, which is worse even than tarmac to walk on. At Histon I’m on real concrete, pounding the deserted guided-busway towards the north, my feet feeling heavier and heavier with each step. It is only when I reach the main road that I can branch off along a grassy field track and retouch the ground. It is late in the evening, growing dark.
And it is here that I meet a remarkable young woman, a girl in fact. She is the second today. On this long walk, apart from 1000 motorists and truck-drivers, with whom I have made only the slightest and briefest of eye-blinking acquaintance, I have encountered only two other humans. Both have been girls, perhaps 14 or 15 (though it’s difficult to tell), both out riding alone, both straight-backed, open-faced, cool, confident, assured. That’s what sitting on a horse gives you, I guess. The first, near Madingley, ambles round the corner of the track on a well-groomed, shiny bay. I am consulting a map. “Are you lost?” she asks. Am I lost? I want to tell her that, existentially speaking, yes, we are all lost, but cannot lay such a burden on so young a heart. “No, no. Thanks. I know more or less where I am.” “OK. Enjoy your walk”. She passes on, without breaking stride. The second is here, between Histon and Oakington. She is riding towards me on a beautiful skewbald. She stops beside me. “What are you looking for?” – this in the sweetest of well-spoken voices. What am I looking for? What is it with the deep questions today, from such unlikely quarters? Then I realize she must have noticed my binoculars. “Oh, anything living… you know, foxes, owls….”, I reply. “I’ve seen lots of pheasants”, she says. Then, as she nudges her pony forward, a benediction. “Well, I hope you find what you’re looking for”. They must be angels, these two, slipping into and out of my life with such questions. Are you lost? What are you looking for? Questions to last one a lifetime.